Saturday, December 26, 2009

St. John, Apostle and Evangelist

Sermon on John 21:20-24
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
December 27, 2009 (St. John, Apostle and Evangelist)

Here we are, two days after Christmas. The presents have been opened, the toys played with, the food eaten (in some cases including my own way too much food was eaten), and all of the other things that go along with Christmas in our culture have pretty much taken place. Some of you who have widely scattered families might still have some Christmas celebrations yet, but by and large Christmas is over for most people, and we as a society are turning our attention to New Year’s Day and the various parties and other events that take place on that day. But here in the Church, Christmas has just started. To the world, the Christmas season is the Christmas shopping season, which runs from mid-November up until Christmas. But in the Church, the Christmas season starts on Christmas and runs until Epiphany. I’m sure all of you are familiar with the song, the Twelve Days of Christmas. There actually are twelve days of Christmas, from December 25 until January 5, with January 6 being the Epiphany of our Lord. That makes today the third day of Christmas. Back during medieval times in Europe, when a much greater portion of the population were members of one Church and even the secular and business worlds were more in tune with the Church’s calendar, these twelve days of Christmas were one big celebration, with Church services every day for twelve days in a row.

Each of these twelve days, however, had its own emphasis. Yesterday, the second day of Christmas, was devoted to commemorating St. Stephen, who was the first Christian to be stoned for his faithful confession that Jesus Christ, the baby born in Bethlehem, the man crucified and risen for us, is indeed the Son of God. Tomorrow, the fourth day of Christmas, is the commemoration of the Holy Innocents, those baby boys up to the age of two in and around Bethlehem who were killed by Herod’s soldiers when Herod had found out that a king had been born in that city. Today, the third day of Christmas, commemorates the apostle and Gospel writer St. John, whose teaching about the union between God and Man in the person of Jesus Christ gives us a new appreciation for the mystery and the wonder of what took place in that stable in Bethlehem.

The Gospel lesson for today took place after Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus had come to His disciples while they were fishing on the Sea of Galilee, and had given them a meal of bread and fish, which are the same foods He used for the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000 earlier in John’s Gospel. After the meal, Jesus has a conversation with Peter in which he asks Peter to be a faithful shepherd, a faithful pastor, to Christ’s church, even though it will mean that he, Peter, will eventually be put to death for his confession of faith. Jesus did this because Peter had fallen away from Christ by denying Him during the trial on Good Friday, and without Holy Absolution Peter’s guilt would cripple his ability to forgive others of their sin and guilt. After that conversation, we read today’s text, in which Peter and Jesus discuss St. John, who was Jesus’ closest friend among the disciples.

Since Jesus had just told Peter that he himself would face martyrdom for his faithful confession of the truth, Peter is naturally curious about John. What about him? Will he also be put to death? Jesus tells Peter not to worry about John, but rather to focus upon the work that Jesus was giving Peter himself to do. God will take care of John through the course of his life, just as He will take care of Peter through the course of his life. We know from some of the ancient historians in the Church that John was the only apostle who died of natural causes in old age, even though ironically John’s older brother James was the first of the twelve to be put to death. The other apostles were killed either by the Jews or by the Romans for their faithful confession of the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. This led to the rumor that John was not going to die at all until Jesus came again. This is why John writes what he does at the end, in an attempt to put that rumor to rest. John lived long enough to write five books of the Bible: the Gospel that bears his name, the three epistles or letters that also bear his name, and the Revelation to St. John. This was what God kept him alive to do, was to testify to the Truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and so to enrich God’s Word with his own uniquely simple and profound style of writing.

It may have been tempting for the other apostles to be jealous of John when they were imprisoned and put to death for their faithful confession of the truth. It’s not fair, it might seem, that even though all of them testify to the same truth, not all are given the same treatment. Most are killed, but one is not. That’s not fair! For us as well, it’s tempting to think that it’s not fair when it seems like it is those who have fallen away from the faith or are notorious sinners that seem to be doing the best in this life, while the nice guys, the good people, seem to finish last, at least from the perspective of this world.

But in the midst of thoughts like these Jesus’ words to Peter regarding St. John speak to us as well. “What is that to you?” Why should you care how someone else is doing? Look after yourself. Focus your eyes on what God has given you to do, the life He has given you to live. Look at others around you not as targets of jealousy, but as those given us as opportunities to show God’s love. Remember that no matter how bad you think you might have it, as a sinner you deserve worse. Remember that no matter how good you think others have it, they have problems and troubles of their own, and these problems and troubles are opportunities for Christ to love them through us. Remember especially that because of Christ’s suffering and death our own sufferings and deaths are merely temporary. We will be raised up with Christ on the last day to live before God in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness. Let God worry about how others are doing. Your vocation is simply to confess Him whose suffering removes your suffering and theirs, through your confession of faith to them in word and deed.

Consider also our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. He is the Lord and Creator of heaven and earth, ruling every cubic inch of this creation personally by His infinite power and wisdom. And yet, when He became man he had to become a lowly, helpless infant, who relied upon His mother for everything. He was born of a completely unknown family, in a stable of all places, because nobody would make room for Mary, Joseph, and Himself. Even though He is the eternal Son of the Father, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by Whom all things were made—even though He is all of that, He was born and lived as an ordinary man. And worst of all, He never boasted or bragged about being the Son of God, but He was put to death for claiming to be what He really was. If you think life is unfair to you, you have nothing on Jesus Christ!

But all of this, everything He endured, was for you. Everything that happened on Christmas, leading up to Good Friday and Easter Sunday, Ascension Day, and Pentecost, was for you. He gives you the blessings He earned by His suffering through Word and Sacrament even today. Just like John, we are to rely solely on Him, to be so close to Him as to lean on His breast when we suffer, so that we may receive comfort from Him through His Word and His body and blood, even as John did on Maundy Thursday. Receiving these blessings strengthens you to go and live the life God has given you to live, to serve your family and neighbors and those for whom you work in your daily jobs with the strength that Christ gives you to perform your duties faithfully and well. Living your life in thanksgiving to God this way, you won’t have the need to be constantly looking around at others who seem to be doing better than you are. You will be following Christ, even as both St. Peter and St. John did, each in his own way. And ultimately by God’s grace the destination will be the same as well: you will be reborn into eternal life just as Christ was born into our lives in Bethlehem to set us free. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Wednesday of Advent 2

Sermon on Malachi 4:1-6
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
December 9, 2009 (Wednesday of the Second Week in Advent)

The great and awesome day of the Lord will burn like an oven and set the arrogant and the evildoers ablaze. But for those who fear His name, the Sun of Righteousness will rise with healing in His wings. This past Sunday I mentioned how perverse it sounds that we are supposed to rejoice and lift up our heads when we see and hear about the wars and diseases and disasters that remind us that the Day of the Lord is coming. The Old Testament lesson shows us that same sharp contrast focusing on the Day of the Lord itself. That which is a cause for horror and despair for those who are not in Christ, is a cause for joy and profound relief for those who are in Him.

But who is this Elijah character mentioned here? Jesus identifies this as a reference to John the Baptizer, the last and greatest of the Old Testament prophets. But John was, in earthly terms, Jesus’ cousin, and his ministry overlapped Jesus’ ministry, close to two thousand years ago. His purpose was to prepare the way of the Lord in His earthly ministry. But Malachi makes it sound like he’s preparing the way for the end of the world and the final day of judgment, which to our time-bound human way of reasoning, doesn’t make any sense at all.

The key is found in Malachi’s description of what John will do. He will “turn hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers.” The separation between human beings, even members of the same family, is yet another tragic result of the fall of humanity into sin, along with the diseases and disasters mentioned elsewhere. Separations and disorders, leading to utter destruction and chaos, are symptoms and results of the first and ultimate separation caused by Adam’s transgression in the garden. The crown of creation, mankind, was separated from his creator. That’s where things started to fall apart, and the wars and disasters we see around us, and the hatreds and failures to forgive we see even among us, are all consequences of that fundamental separation. John’s job, according to Malachi, is to fix that. It is, in the words of the New Testament, to preach repentance and baptism for the forgiveness of sins.

But ultimately it’s not John who can do that. He can preach it, but the reconciliation that needs to happen is not just between human fathers and human children, but between our true Father and His true children. Only when the breach caused by sin is healed, can the hearts of fathers be turned to their children and the children to their fathers. Only if God forgives us, can we forgive each other. And that is the sense in which we are to remember the laws and statutes given through Moses. The summary of the Law is to love God with all our heart, and love our neighbors as ourselves. But even that, God has to initiate. We can’t heal the breach, we can only love each other if He first loves us. The separation is too great otherwise.

And so, in order for God the Father to turn His heart to us, He takes the separation, the division, the destruction, into Himself. His heart is turned away from His own Son. “My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” is what David prophesies that His ultimate Son will say on the cross. The separations that plague us, the separations which will ultimately destroy this old world itself, are taken into the Godhead. And you can’t permanently separate the members of the Holy Trinity from each other. The separation is put to death. “It is finished.” God has unilaterally declared peace, and he proclaims this peace every time the Gospel is preached. And through it the Holy Spirit works in the hearts of the children to turn them back to their Father who loves them for the sake of their Brother, Jesus Christ. The destruction of the old world, like the destruction of Jesus Himself on the cross, is undone with the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, the first-fruits of the new creation where the Sun of Righteousness is our life, our joy, and our salvation. We died with Him, we rose with Him, and we partake of Him. The Sun of Righteousness will dawn on us on that last day, not with judgment, but with peace. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Advent 2

Sermon on Luke 21:25-36
For Lamb of God Lutheran Church, Pleasant Prairie, WI
December 6, 2009 (The Second Sunday in Advent)

The signs of the end times which Jesus lists in today’s Gospel are pretty serious. Some might even call them horrifying. “And there will be signs in the sun, in the moon, and in the stars; and on earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring; men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” It doesn’t conjure up a pretty picture to my mind. In fact, Jesus describes the reaction of most of the world to these events rather vividly: “men’s hearts failing them from fear and the expectation of those things which are coming on the earth.” And, of course, the reminders that this old world is slated for destruction are not a pleasant thing to contemplate. In addition to the fact that these signs are unpleasant in themselves, they are also reminders that “security,” which is probably the biggest buzzword to sum up this entire decade since 2001, is only an illusion as long as we live in a world that’s been infected by sin, despite how we would like to think of ourselves as safe and secure, despite whatever steps we may take or what steps the government takes on our behalf. And that’s not a comfortable thought. The idea that no matter what we do or what the government does, we will never be truly safe from death or disaster, is not something most people like to contemplate.

And what comes after death is something that most people are even less equipped to handle. Facing the Judge who will hold them accountable for their actions is not something people appreciate having to deal with. It’s something that man by nature dreads. It’s something that our own old sinful natures dread. We haven’t been righteous. And we know it. Even our best attempts to please God are against the First Commandment because they come from us and not from Him. And so the reminders that this old world is headed to destruction are not something we like to contemplate. We’d rather wrap ourselves in as much “security” as we possibly can. Because as far as the old self goes, the alternative is death and judgment, panic and chaos. We want the illusion of safety, not just because of the potential of terrorism, but because we don’t want to face the judgment and would rather pretend we can ward it off by making ourselves as “secure” as possible.

And so it sounds a little bizarre when Jesus says a couple of verses later on, “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” In the context of all the death and destruction and chaos that results from sin and warns us of the eventual doom of this old world, the idea that such things are a hopeful sign which should cause us eager anticipation, is more than a little perverse, from a human standpoint. And of course, Jesus isn’t saying we should take a twisted delight in wars or rumors of wars; even when necessary such things are murderous, bloody events which remind us daily just how far man has strayed from his creator. And we definitely shouldn’t take a perverse delight in natural disasters or the other symptoms of the impending destruction of this old world. None of these things in themselves are causes for rejoicing. Instead they are causes for compassion for the victims caught up in such things.

But in light of the Christian faith, they are reminders to us that “our redemption draws near.” And that is a cause for rejoicing for those who are in Christ, because it is a reminder that we will inherit a new heavens and a new earth that are not corrupted by this old world sins, where death is no more, and war and disease and disasters are no longer a possibility. That’s why Jesus uses the budding of trees in springtime as an illustration of what looks to the world like wintry chaos and judgment. The end of this old world signifies the beginning of eternal life.

But there still something a little strange about what Jesus says in this text. Here we are, nearly 2000 years later, and Jesus still hasn’t returned in glory. What, then, did He mean when He said that “this generation will by no means pass away till all things take place”? Well, remember that the paradox of things that look bad being good news for us is not only true of the end times. The same paradox is true of something that did happen before the generation that was then alive passed away. Good Friday doesn’t look very good when we look at it with human eyes. In fact, it bears a strong resemblance to the signs of the end of the world Jesus mentions in our text. On Good Friday, something happened which shook the entire creation, which caused the sun to become dark, earthquakes, the opening of graves, and the shaking of the faith of even Jesus’ most stalwart followers. The Son of God died on a cross. God Himself suffered the punishment for the sins of the world. At first glance, that, too, sounds like an occasion for sorrow and fear. After all, it was our sins that put Him there. It was our selfishness that caused Him to be tortured and die. It was our failure to love and trust in Him that caused Him to be abandoned by everyone, even His Father. At first glance, this doesn’t seem like cause for rejoicing.

But Good Friday is still known as Good Friday. And that’s because our sins were, in fact, paid for by Jesus’ death on the cross. God no longer sees them because Christ took our place, and so now we take His place before His Father’s throne. And that means that the events of Good Friday, though horrifying in themselves, are now a sign to us that sin has been done away with and our salvation has been won. An instrument of torture and execution is now the symbol of Christianity itself, the symbol to which we look for comfort when our conscience will not let us rest because of our sins. Likewise with Judgment Day. The reminders to us that this old world is won’t survive forever because of the sin of its inhabitants, is also a reminder to us that what happens then is the new heavens and new earth in which we will live forever with our God. Good Friday and Judgment Day are very closely related to one another, which is why the signs of Judgment Day were seen on Good Friday, with the darkness and the earthquake and the resurrection of the Old Testament saints. In both cases, events which are in themselves horrifying and upsetting are reminders to us that something better is coming.

After all, we already know what verdict will be pronounced upon us on Judgment Day. When Christ said from the Cross, “It is finished,” He was telling us that our redemption has been accomplished. What the Judge says about us on Judgment Day, namely that we are innocent and pure and sinless, is what that same Judge said already on Good Friday with the words, “It is finished.” And it’s the same thing He says through the mouths of His messengers every Sunday with the words, “In the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

Not only that, but the new heavens and the new earth which will replace this old world also already exist. And we are already partakers of that heavenly kingdom. Christ’s body is the first-fruits of the entire new creation. In Christ’s resurrected flesh the new creation itself is begun. And it is that new-creation body and blood of Christ which we eat and drink in the Lord’s Supper. Even while we must suffer the insecurity and the sorrow and the pain that so often accompanies life in this old world, we not only hear about with our ears, but we eat and drink into our bodies the new creation in which neither sin nor any of its effects exist at all. We already know the verdict of Judgment Day, and we are already citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Of course we don’t see that glorious reality with our physical eyes, and so we are in danger of walking away from it by the lure of this old world’s illusions of peace, happiness, and security. Which is why God continues to come to us to refresh and renew His promises to us by His Word and His resurrected body and blood. We are worthy to stand before the Son of Man, because He has made us so. And so the sorrows and troubles of this old life, even though in themselves they are a reminder of the sin and evil that has corrupted the world, have become for us reminders of the new life which is to come. Even the worst that Satan can throw at us, death, has become the gate to eternal life. And so all the things that lead up to death are reminders to us that this world will eventually be replaced by the new heavens and new earth of which we are already citizens. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +